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Facebook’s Early Days: What The News Had To Say

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Facebook is one of the biggest stories of our time. But did we know it when it was happening?

Facebook began in a student’s dorm room, and today it’s used by over ONE BILLION PEOPLE. It started with the tiniest of whispers, and is now practically a global force majeure. 

I wanted to know- how did the news report all of this as it was happening?

Here are some of the interesting snippets I’ve noticed from digging up old news articles about Facebook:

Mark Zuckerberg’s Hacker Ethos:

Famous Facebook Wall Decorations
Famous Facebook Wall Decorations

Zuckerberg’s interested in tinkering, not in publicity: “Zuckerberg said his primary attraction to building the website was the science of creating the program and compiling the photos, not the prospect of publicizing it for widespread use. ‘I’m a programmer and I’m interested in the algorithms and math behind it,’ said Zuckerberg, who is no stranger to creating computer software and programs.” – The Harvard Crimson – Hot or Not? Website Briefly Judges Looks [2003]

A couple of year’s work in a week! ‘“Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard,” Zuckerberg said. “I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.” – The Harvard Crimson – Hundreds Register For New Facebook Website [2004]

In his 2004 essay The Word “Hacker”, Paul Graham describes how physicist Richard Feynman amused himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents. It’s hard not to see the same “Because I Can” spirit in Mark Zuckerberg.

Epic User Growth:

Data courtesy of Ben Foster (@benphoster)
Data courtesy of Ben Foster (@benphoster)

650 users: “As of yesterday afternoon, Zuckerberg said over 650 students had registered use thefacebook.com. He said that he anticipated that 900 students would have joined the site by this morning.” – The Harvard Crimson – Hundreds Register For New Facebook Website [2004]

38,000 users: “TheFacebook.com has 38,327 registered users and an average of 1,000 new registration requests daily, and the growth of the online network is surprising even to its founders.” – The Tufts Daily – Online network created by Harvard students flourishes [2004]

250,000 users: “And there’s quite a bit of poking going on. Chard-Yaron, a Southern Californian who will be a junior at Columbia University in the fall, is one of about 250,000 students at 34 colleges across the United States intrigued by Thefacebook. Unlike social websites like Friendster and orkut, Thefacebook is meant only for college students and alums.” – Wired – College Facebook Mugs Go Online [2004]

2,800,000 users: “It is not easy capturing the attention of Jim Breyer, one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists. But Mark Zuckerberg, a 21-year-old Harvard student, managed to do it with a Web site that has attracted 2.8 million registered users on more than 800 campuses since it began in February 2004.” – The New York Times – Student’s Start-Up Draws Attention And $13 Million [2005]

9,300,000 users: “The growth move is fraught with risk for the company, whose more than 9.3 million registered users are intensely attached to the site because it lets them connect to a select group of peers.” –Forbes – Open Facebook [2006]

50,000,000 users:  “We are pleased to take our Microsoft partnership to the next level,” said Owen Van Natta, chief revenue officer, Facebook. “This relationship will allow Facebook to continue to innovate and grow as a technology company, as well as bring relevant advertising to Facebook’s nearly 50 million active users.” – Microsoft – Facebook and Microsoft expand strategic alliance [2007]

Facebook has over 1,000,000,000 users now.

Pre-empting the social ramifications of Facebook:

Social is all about performance.
Image courtesy of comicalconcept.com

Peer pressure to have presentable profiles: “Kim Truong, a graduate student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said that the site might have social drawbacks. “I heard from undergraduate students that they have been feeling stressed out due to theFacebook.com, because they have to add all of their activities,” she said. “I think they might feel pressured to have long lists of activities, quotes, and an overall presentable profile.”  – The Tufts Daily – Online network created by Harvard students flourishes [2004]

Oversharing of intimate details: “While senior Teri Wing called the online facebook sites “creepy,” because of the nature of other social networking sites, which often include racy content. “I feel like people would show off more than they normally do on such sites. If I just need to send an e-mail, I don’t necessarily want to know what the other person wants people to think,” she said. “Think of Friendster — people put up some weird stuff — and being young, much of it’s sexual, which I don’t really need to know about my classmates.”  – The Tufts Daily – Online network created by Harvard students flourishes [2004]

Addiction: “It’s a stupid, stupid website, but I am completely addicted,” freshman Emily Bruckner said. “I just go around and look at all of my friends and see who they’re friends with. It’s like a contest to see who has the most friends.” – The Chronicle – Thefacebook.com Opens To Duke Students [2004]

So it turns out that people knew pretty early on that it was going to be really addictive. We’ve actually explored the above problems in greater detail in our blogpost WHY are people so annoying on social media?

Interesting Details:

An employee walks past servers in one of four server rooms at the Facebook Data Center on April 19, 2012 in Forest City, North Carolina. (AFP Photo)
An employee walks past servers in one of four server rooms at the Facebook Data Center on April 19, 2012 in Forest City, North Carolina. (AFP Photo)

Facebook’s college legacy: “We were very conscious from the outset that there is a lot of information on the website and that students may only want certain information available to certain users,” Hughes said. “With Facebook, the only profiles that you see are people that you really might see around campus. It’s grounded in a certain reality that Friendster doesn’t have.”‘ – The Chronicle – Thefacebook.com Opens To Duke Students [2004]

“Retaining alumni” problem: ‘How to retain alumni as users is “an interesting question for us,” Mr. Parker said. “We’re trying to figure out what functionality they want once they graduate. Are they looking for jobs? Are they trying to date?”‘ – The New York Times – Student’s Start-Up Draws Attention And $13 Million [2005]

It’s easy to forget now that everybody’s using Facebook, but Facebook started out exclusively for college students.  In a note he wrote in 2009 titled The Path Matters, early Facebook employee Boz describes how “if we had tried to jump straight to the end state, we would have never gotten it right.”

Sean Parker’s and Peter Thiel’s involvement:  “Before heading west, Mr. Zuckerberg arranged a dinner with Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, to talk about his Web site, which had swept through Stanford University in a number of weeks. A few weeks later, the two bumped into each other on a street in Palo Alto, Calif. Before long, Mr. Parker, who is also a co-founder of Plaxo, an online service that updates e-mail address books, began informally advising the company. By the end of the summer, he became president. And he introduced Mr. Zuckerberg to Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist and founder of PayPal, the online payment service acquired by eBay in 2002.

Mr. Thiel invested $500,000 as seed money, the first major infusion of cash into thefacebook.com, Mr. Zuckerberg said. More important, his connection gave it the imprimatur of an up-and-coming company. Soon, other investors came calling.” – The New York Times – Student’s Start-Up Draws Attention And $13 Million [2005]

Word-of-mouth is awesome: “Yahoo is having all sorts of problems these days because their advertising revenue is coming in less than expected,” said Richard Dorfman, managing director of Richard Alan Inc., a financial advisory and investment company focusing on the media industry. “What’s beautiful about Facebook is that it’s a great place to advertise because it generates the equivalent of online word of mouth. That’s a powerful phenomenon,” he added. – CNN Money – Is Facebook Worth A Million Bucks? [2006]

Facebook as Utility: “I think there’s confusion around what the point of social networks is. A lot of different companies characterized as social networks have different goals — some serve the function of business networking, some are media portals. What we’re trying to do is just make it really efficient for people to communicate, get information and share information. We always try to emphasize the utility component.” – Zuckerberg – TIME – The Future Of Facebook [2007]

Wrong Predictions:

As a general rule, it’s probably advisable to avoid making predictions altogether.

“… but MySpace is better!” “Lois DiTommaso, a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, says she has both a MySpace and Facebook account but she uses MySpace more since that site “is more for everyone” while Facebook is tailored more specifically for college campus life. “Facebook is more nerdy,” she added.” – CNN Money – Is Facebook Worth A Million Bucks? [2006]

“Facebook should stay a college network.” “I don’t understand why they don’t want to be a college network,” says David Card, senior analyst at JupiterResearch. “They’d get higher (advertising rates) than MySpace (NWS), I guarantee you.” – Businessweek – Facebook: Opening Doors Wider [2006]

Money, Money, Money!

Too appropriate an image not to use.
Too appropriate not to use.

Facebook achieved self-sustainability through Google ads: “The site’s founders are banking on its long-term health. Though the costs of running it have increased from about $85 to almost $3,000 a month, Thefacebook is now self-sufficient, thanks to an influx of ad revenue, Hughes said. Ads from search powerhouse Google will pay for the site for a while, Zuckerberg said.” – Wired – College Facebook Mugs Go Online [2004]

Speculatively valued between $600 million and $2 billion: “At the time of the company’s last round of funding, the Silicon Valley rumor mill pegged the company’s value at around $600 million. But the “why not?” logic of the latest tech boom has fueled reports placing even higher price tags on the company–someone purportedly attached to the company even managed to attach a $2 billion price tag/trial balloon last spring. “We have to correct that. The $2 billion price tag reported in the media is so far out there,” Zuckerberg said during an Aug. 17 interview.” – Forbes – Open Facebook [2006]

Turning down $750,000,000: “The 22-year-old is founder and chief executive of Facebook.com, the social-networking site of choice for college students and the seventh most trafficked. Despite scant experience, Zuckerberg runs a 150-person company that has raised $38 million in venture capital. He turned down at least one acquisition offer for $750 million, and recently signed an advertising deal with Microsoft (MSFT) that those close to the company say is worth hundreds of millions of dollars over several years.” – Businessweek – Facebook: Opening Doors Wider [2006]

$15 billion evaluation: “Microsoft will take a $240 million equity stake in Facebook’s next round of financing at a $15 billion valuation. Under the expanded strategic alliance, Microsoft will be the exclusive third-party advertising platform partner for Facebook, and will begin to sell advertising for Facebook internationally in addition to the United States. – Microsoft – Facebook and Microsoft expand strategic alliance [2007]

Cashflow positive, and ahead of schedule: “In a blog post on Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote that the company was “cash flow positive” in the last quarter. He had previously projected that Facebook would meet that goal in 2010. “This is important to us because it sets Facebook up to be a strong independent service for the long term,” Zuckerberg wrote.” – CBC News – Facebook ‘cash flow positive,’ signs 300M users [2009]

In 2006, CNN Money wrote an article titled “Is Facebook Worth A Million Bucks?” We now see Facebook acquiring Instagram for $1 billion dollars, Oculus Rift for $2 billion dollars, and WhatsApp for $19 billion dollars. We can probably assume at this point that they’re going to acquire something even bigger, just so we look stupid each time we say “Whoa, isn’t that a bit excessive?”

Thoughts: If old news looks silly or odd now, what will today’s news look like a decade from now?

Studying the media’s response to Facebook as it emerged and grew is incredibly enlightening on hindsight.

There are countless other interesting news articles in the same vein- Newsweek predicting the end of the Internet (Newsweek is now, ironically, online-only), and the early reactions to the release of the iPod, for example. Old newspapers and articles are full of embarrassing predictions and faulty assessments. Most people didn’t anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union.

So you really can’t take any contemporary analysis too seriously. Until the future happens, we’re really all just guessing.


Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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